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Jordan Peterson Is Wrong About The Historical Jesus

As followers of my blog/podcast know, I am a long-time admirer of Jordan Peterson. However, admiration of a thinker also involves critical engagement with his ideas.

On many issues, Peterson is the expert and I simply learn in a field where I have no other real knowledge. However, when it comes to some other issues, I do have knowledge. Specifically, on the topics of the Historical Jesus, the dating of the New Testament, and the Gnostic Gospels, I am really quite knowledgeable. I seem, in fact, to be far more knowledgeable than Peterson.

Great debates rage on these topics, on academic grounds and on religious grounds, between educated Christians and educated skeptics. For some really excellent debates on the real issues surrounding the origins of Christianity, as considered by leading scholars of the day, you could check out this clash between Dr. Bert Ehrman, and Dr. William Lane Craig. Ehrman is a leading New Testament scholar, and an atheist whereas Craig is a leading philosopher, apologist, and New Testament historian.

So which side of this debate does Peterson take?

Well…embarrassingly, he doesn’t take either side. In fact, he seems to be unaware of the sides, or the issues involved. He simply doesn’t understand the contemporary debate on these issues.

Embarrassingly, Peterson’s ideas seem over a century out-of-date, as he spouts ideas consisted with the first quest for the historical Jesus. (Interestingly, this is about the time that Carl Jung was writing, and so I wonder if he refers to Jung as his expert on early Christianity and Jesus?) Worse yet, he sometimes takes positions that sound tragically similar to the swill of conspiracy theories surrounding the Da Vinci code, that one can so readily access on Netflix specials and TV documentaries…but which often has absolutely no basis in the actual research on these subjects.

I became so impassioned about these subjects that I recorded a podcast. Listen to it here, and here (this link will become live in one week).

For the busy listener, here is a synopsis I typed out quickly on Facebook.

Thank you for listening, and I hope that this helps to clarify some of the strengths…and some of the weaknesses…of this great thinker.

Subscribe to my podcast in iTunes or Android


“But we do have other examples, some much less mythologized and archetypal [than Jesus]. Consider, for example, the case of Socrates, the ancient Greek philosopher.”
― from “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos”

“It is for such reasons that Christ said, in the Gospel of Thomas, “The Kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the earth, but men do not see it.” 75”
― from “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos”

“In the great and fundamental myths of ancient Egypt, the god Horus—often regarded as a precursor to Christ, historically and conceptually speaking —experienced the same thing, when he confronted his evil uncle Set, usurper of the throne of Osiris, Horus’s father. Horus, the all-seeing Egyptian falcon god, the Egyptian eye of supreme, eternal attention itself, has the courage to contend with Set’s true nature, meeting him in direct combat.”
― from “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos”

…so Peterson seems to believe the following statements:
1) The Jesus of the New Testament was a myth
2) Socrates story was less mythologized
3) The Gospel of Thomas contains Jesus’ true words
4) Jesus’ identity grew out of Greek mythology
1) Criticial portions of the New Testament (including 1 Corinthians 15, Philippiasns 2:3-11, and Galatians) were written within 20 years of Jesus’ death, and clearly affirm the diety and salvific nature of Christ. This is simply not enough time for a true myth to develop
2) (It doesn’t really matter, but…) Socrates’ story *is* mythologized, and there is serious disagreement as to whether he actually existed. Unlike Jesus, (for whom we have no less than seven separate streams of data about His life) for Socrates, our information mostly comes from Plato, who clearly made up words and put them in Socrates mouth at times.
3) The Gospel of Thomas was written later. It was never popular, never circulated outside of north africa, never accepted by the Early Church as scriptures, never considered in any of the lists of Biblical books, never quoted authoritatively by any church father, never considered by any church father as containing the words of Jesus. Virtually no reputable scholar today believes that it contains the words of Jesus, since it is clearly a later book, which is linguistically derivative of the canonical gospels, and clearly written by Gnostics (the gnostic religion is antithetical to Judaism on key points, but the first Christians were Jews), almost certainly in the second century or later.
4) During the first quest for the historical Jesus (c. 1850-1920) it was common to believe that Jesus grew out of pagan mythology. However, these ideas were debunked (not by orthodox Christians, but by secular academics and historians at leading universities) because a) Jesus was a Jew, not a Greek, b) Second-temple Judaism was in an ideological and physical war against outside influences since the Maccabean revolt: and Pharisees and Rabbis (with whom Jesus associated) were at the heart of this movement, …for these reasons, scholars talk about the “Jewish reclamation of Jesus,” and all legitimate contemporary scholarship talks about Jesus in terms of his *Jewish* ancestry. (By the way, the entire attempt to appeal to *Egyptian* mythology is completely misguided. If anything, Jesus would have been influenced by *Greek* thoughts. By the first century, Egyptian religion was in steep decline, as Egypt had been ruled by foreign empires for more than half a millennia] The second quest for the historical Jesus (c. 1960) and the third quest (c. 1980-present) introduced reliable criteria into the study of Jeuss, such as the criteria of embarrassment, the criteria of dissimilarity, the criteria of Aramaic relics, and others. With these tools, scholars (many of whom are not committed Christians, and who most certainly do *not* worship Jesus as God) have established certain data points for the life of Christ. The most agreed upon of which are: 1) Jesus was born in palestine at around 5 BC, 2) Jesus was a teacher, and a miracle worker, 3) Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, 4) Jesus had a ministry of teaching and healing, and lead followers, 5) Jesus died on a roman cross, around 33 AD, 6) Jesus’ followers continued to worship him after his death.
Again, these are not Christian people studying, from the position of faith. Take a class on the historical Jeuss from Yale, Harvard, or wherever, and this is what will be discussed today. Or, you could watch a debate online (eg. with William Lane Craig) and you will see a Christian debating some of these scholars (eg. Bert Erhman). The debate will *agree* on certain facts, which are established by resarch and study, then debate how those facts should be interpreted.
But Peterson seems out of touch with this body of research, or the conversation that is currently going on. My suspicion is that he gets his Jesus studies from Carl Jung who — on other matters — is still a great source, but on this matter should NOT be consulted, since he is a product of his time, and aware *only* of the first quest for the historical Jesus. Jesus is the most studied man in history, and half-a-century-old ideas about the historical Jesus.

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